Don’t Mind Your Language…

Language. Language, language, language. In the end it all comes down to language. I write to you today on this subject as a way of welcoming you to 2.0 and because, well, it’s a subject worth thinking about at any time and because fewer things interest me quite so much.

Image: Nicole Stewart for SamFry

There are so many questions and issues jostling, tumbling and colliding in my mind that I can barely list them. Is language the father of thought? There’s one. Somebody once said, “How can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’m going to say?” Is language being degraded, is it not what it was? Is there a right way to express yourself and a wrong? Grammar, does that exist, or is it a pedantic imposition, a kind of unnatural mixture of strangulation and straightening, like pleaching, pollarding and training pear-trees against a wall? Can we translate from one tongue into another without irreparable loss? And many, many more.

“Language is the universal whore that I must make into a virgin,” wrote Karl Kraus or somebody so like him that it makes no odds. One of my favourite remarks. T. S. Eliot said much the same thing in a different way: “to purify the dialect of the tribe”. But is there a “higher language”, a purer language, a proper language, a right language? Is language a whore, used, bruised and abused by every john in the street … is the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe a poetic ideal or nonsensical snobbery?

I suppose we should remind ourselves of the old distinction made by the structuralists and structural linguists. I wrote a sketch about this years and years ago and if you know it, you’ll have to forgive the similarities between what I found to be a source of humour and what I am now apparently taking seriously. Actually the one doesn’t cancel out or refute the other. We can make fun of this kind of language about language and we can value it too. So bearing in mind that I am fully aware that I sound like the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, let’s look at that distinction. There is language, the thing itself, the idea of language. And then there is this or that example of language in praxis, in use. There is Chess and there is this or that game of chess. The Game of Chess and that game of chess going on over there. There is language, the human capacity – ‘competence’ as Chomsky calls it, The Game of Language – and there is utterance, the actual instance of its use – this sentence for example. Of course aside from both of these, there is the local tongue, English, French, Cantonese, Basque, whatever.

The two for consideration however as those once fashionable Frenchies designated them are Langue, language as an idea, and parole, language as utterance. In this instance of parole I am using not only English, but my own brand of English, an English English salted, spiced, pickled, seasoned, braised and plated up to you bearing all the flavours of my class, gender, education and nature, discourses as you might call them. I am in some sort a language professional I suppose, in as much as I write and broadcast, I linguify for a living you might say. Nonetheless, I can no more change my language and the sum of its discourses than I can add a cubit to my height or, sadly it seems, take a pound from my weight. Well, perhaps that’s going a little far. I can attempt to disguise my language, I can dress it up into even more elaborate and grandiose orotundity, prolixity and self-consciousness, Will Self-consciousness you might say, or I could dress it down into something stripped. Stark. Bare. Simple. It would be hard to dress it down into something raggedly demotic without it being a patronising pastiche of a street argot to which I quite evidently have no access and in whose mazy slang avenues I would soon get lost, innit? In a sense I am typecast linguistically and although I can for fun try on all kinds of brogues and dialect clothes, my voice, my style, my language is as distinctive as my fingerprints.

My language (as the sum of my discourses, as linguistic strata that betray my history, as geology or archaeology betrays history) is my language and it is a piece of who I am, perhaps even the defining piece. In my case it is in part a classical ruin, inherited boulders of Tacitus and Cicero bleaching in the sun along with grass-overrun elements of Thucydides and Aeschylus … not because I was a classical scholar, but because I was taught by classical scholars and grew up on poets, dramatists and novelists who knew the classics as intimately as most people of my generation know the Beatles and the Stones. Without knowing it therefore, heroic Ciceronian clausulae and elaborate Tacitan litotes can always be found in the English of people like me. In part classical ruin, then, my language in particular has also mixed in it elements of my three Ws, my particular world wide web, my w.w.w, Wodehouse, Waugh and Wilde, three writers who greatly excited my imagination and stimulated my language glands like no other. I would add Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett as others of whom I am consciously aware. But the language of British movies, classic novels, sixties and seventies broadcasters like Malcolm Muggeridge, James Cameron, Alistair Cooke, John Ebden, Anthony Quinton, Robert Robinson, they all played their part in informing my spoken and written utterance too, not to mention the elemental styles which in turn informed their language. As Henry Higgins reminds us in Pygmalion, English is for all of us the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. We unconsciously use the tropes, tricks and figures of our great writers, just as we might without knowing it use a tierce de Picardie or a diminished seventh when humming in the shower. And to our native English today we have added the language of American sitcom and drama, American movies and Australian soap operas.

I’ve used this analogy before, but I’ll use it again. Think of London. Some of its outline was determined by the Romans who conquered it two thousand years ago, since then atop the ruins of the Roman, Saxon, Dark Age and Norman London was constructed a medieval city of winding streets, jostling half-timbered mansions and soaring stone cathedrals and churches. Then came, after the Tudor and Jacobean palaces and halls and after the restoration a period of renewed classical elements, the squares and avenues of Georgian and Regency London, elegant, spacious and harmonious. The Victorians brought long suburban streets, warehouses, libraries, schools, town halls and railway stations and in the twentieth century arrived a new architecture, office towers, corporate headquarters, airports, housing projects in glass and concrete, American and European statements of self conscious modernity, statehood, brutalism, socialism, capitalism and democracy. It isn’t I think, too much of a strain to see the history of our language in similar terms. A long sticky flypaper onto which at varying times of their importance the church, royalty, aristocracy, industry, commerce and international entertainment have accreted themselves. Saxon and Roman elements overlaid with the Norman French and Chaucerian and Church medieval English. A great renaissance of Shakespeare, the Bible of King James, Milton and Dryden leading into the classical English of Johnson and Pope. The Victorian English of industry, Dickens and music hall giving way to the English of the twentieth century, all the way through the arrival of radio and cinema, the political language of fascism, communism, socialism and finance, the Americanisms, the street talk, the rock and roll, the corporate speak, the computer jargon … and here we are. Glass and concrete sentences right next to half-timbered Elizabethan phrases, a Starbucks of an utterance dwelling in an expression that once belonged to a Victorian banker, an Apple Store of an accent in a converted Georgian merchant’s lingo. You get the point. Whether or not we are aware of the difference between a transitive verb and a preposition, a verb and a vowel, we are willy-nilly, heirs to Marlowe and Swift, just as that new Waitrose is a descendant (albeit a bastard one) of the Parthenon. Bear in mind that phrase willy-nilly, by the way – I shall return to it later. For the meantime, seal it in a baggie and stash it in your hoodie. Or fold it in scented tissue and lay it tenderly in your hope chest, according to taste.

I’ve mentioned those French intellectuals the structuralists: one of their number, perhaps the best known, Roland Barthes, liked to use two words jouissance and plaisir. Le plaisir du texte. The pleasure of the text. Those who think structuralism spelt or spelled death to conscious art and such bourgeois comforts as style, accomplishment and enjoyment might be surprised that the pleasure of the text, the jouissance, the juicy joy of language, was important to Roland and his followers. Only to a dullard is language a means of communication and nothing more. It would be like saying sex is a means of reproduction and no more and food a means of fuelling and no more. In life you have to explain wine. You have to explain cheese. You have to explain love. You can’t, but you have to try, or if not try you have, surely, to be aware of the astonishing fact of them. We would never notice if the fat and protein rich food with which cows, ewes and nanny goats suckled their young could not be converted to another, firmer foodstuff that went well with crackers and grapes. We wouldn’t go about the place moaning that sheep’s milk was only of any use to lambs, any more than I have ever heard anyone wonder why pig’s milk doesn’t make a good yoghurt. In fact if you suggest drinking pig’s milk or horse’s milk, people look askance and go “yeurgh!” as if it’s the oddest suggestion they’ve ever heard. We take what nature and custom have led us to accept. As Eddie Izzard pointed out, it’s odd that bees make honey: ‘after all,’ he said, ‘earwigs don’t make chutney.’ And take that arbitrary fruit, the grape: suppose grapes didn’t uniquely transmogrify themselves, without the addition of sugar, into a drink of almost infinite complexity? We wouldn’t wonder at the lack of such a thing as wine in the world, any more than we wonder that raspberry wine (despite the deliciousness of raspberries as fruit) can’t, in the proper sense, exist or speculate on why the eggs of carp aren’t as good to eat as the eggs of sturgeon. But every now and again we should surely celebrate the fact that caviar is so fine, that the grape offers itself up so uniquely, that milk products of three or four species have such versatile by-products for us, that the grain of some grasses can be transformed into bread, that the berry, pod or leaf of this plant or that plant can give us chocolate, coffee or tea, and that while the fuzz of this plant can’t go to make a shirt, the fuzz of that unique one canand the thread of this insect can go to make a tie, while the equally impressive thread, in nature, of that other insect can’t be spun into the simplest handkerchief. Is it weird that silkworms exist or is it weird that only the silkworm will do when it comes to silk and only the cotton plant when it comes to cotton? To put it again, in an accidental line of decasyllabic verse, ‘none would be missed if they didn’t exist’. And if language didn’t elicit pleasure, if it didn’t have its music, its juiciness or jouissance would we notice, or would always be destined to find pleasure in it because that’s a thing we humans can do? Out of the way we move we can make dance, out of the way we speak we can make poetry and oratory and comedy and all kinds of verbal enchantments. Cheese is real, and so it seems, is the pleasure of the text.

I’m veering all over the shop. We’ll return to pleasure later. Steven Pinker, the Harvard Professor who writes on psycholinguistics and the evolutionary development of language and the mind, has made quite a tidy living out of popularising what you might call Chomskian ideas. Noam Chomsky may be better known now for his penetrating critiques of American foreign policy, but he made his reputation as a pioneering linguist. His discovery (or theorem if you prefer) was that the mind comes pre-equipped for language, syntax and grammar, much as the body comes pre-equipped for growth and sexual development. A baby doesn’t have underarm hair, but it has the innate program within it which, at a certain age, usually between twelve and fourteen, will be activated to start producing hair under the arms: a parent doesn’t have to teach it, only the right and natural nutrients need to have been ingested over time so as to allow normal growth and it will just happen. So it is, argue the Chomskians, with language: each baby (given normal development) has an innate language faculty, a language instinct Pinker calls it: local differences between Chinese and English are not, according to this theory, so very profound. A parent doesn’t teach language, much as they may think they do, they just occasionally spoon-feed a bit of vocabulary: moo-cow, baa-lamb, colours and so on, usually – you’ll never hear a parent say “and these are called ‘stairs’ or ‘to wash’ means ‘to clean with water’” – the child absorbs that kind of vocabulary without teaching. The really clever bits, the structure and lexical rules … these no parent can teach because it’s highly unlikely they will even be aware of them. You do not say to an English child: “the aorist of ‘to see’ is ‘saw’ the perfect is ‘have seen’”. You don’t even tell them that to give a sense of the past you add ‘-ed’ to the end of the verb. ‘I play,’ ‘I played’. Many parents will not know what a verb is, nor will they need to, any more than you need to know what an alternator is to drive to the shops or, more pertinently, any more than you need to know what a bronchial tree or alveoli are in order to breathe. This may sound obvious to us all, language as a natural, evolved innate faculty; after all, the theory has been understood and mostly accepted for forty or so years, but if you look back over the history of linguistics to beyond the time such a word even existed, over the shoulders of Saussure, Jakobson and the Brothers Grimm to the earliest philologists and language investigators, there was no obvious reason to suppose that language was innate. Or at least not innate in that way. Many believed, quite seriously, that the Biblical explanation in the story of the Tower of Babel was the true answer to the riddle of language, just as they believed in the Flood and the Creation. Others thought that there was a ‘natural’ language, a primary tongue. Some suggested that it was Latin, others, out of religiosity, that it must be Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. They went so far, under the patronage of bishops and monarchs who took an interest in the subject, as to take foundling children by way of experiment and isolate them completely from all human congress, to give them no access to language at all while they grew up, in the hope that they would revert to some posited universal and original language, the linguistic equivalent of a chemical element or primary tissue, and thereby prove once and for all which of the world’s tongues had primacy. Of course what happened was that such children invented their own language amongst themselves, true languages with wide vocabularies and complex syntactical structures. It is a shame in a way that it would now be considered too cruel to repeat the experiments, just imagine how much would be revealed by a study of these unique languages.

Other theories touching on the nature and origins of language that have had some vogue include that of Professor Jayne’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a fascinating and bold attempt to explain language and, more fundamentally, consciousness itself. Richard Dawkins said that it “… is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between.” Whatever the truth or cogency of Jayne’s central argument, it remains an elegantly written and provocative read and helps raise the issue of whether language is necessary for the subconscious mind, let alone the conscious, to exist. His theories of metaphor are especially interesting. But let’s return to pleasure before we get bogged down in bibliography.

For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

I don’t deny that a small part of me still clings to a ghastly Radio 4/newspaper-letter-writer reader pedantry, but I fight against it in much the same way I try to fight against my gluttony, anger, selfishness and other vices. I must confess, for example, that I find it hard not to wince when someone aspirates the word ‘aitch’. Haitch Eye Vee, you hear all the time now, for HIV. It’s pretty much nails on the blackboard to me, as is the use of the word ‘yourself’ or ‘myself’ when all that is meant is ‘you’ or ‘me’ but I daresay myself’s accent and manner is nails on the blackboard to yourself or to others too, in itself’s own way. Myself also mourns, sometimes, the death of that phrase I bade you upon pain of slapping to remember some time back, ‘willy-nilly’, do you remember? Fold it in your hope chest, I urged, or seal it in a baggie. Well you can take it out now. Willy-nilly. What happened there? Willy-nilly is now used, it seems, to mean ‘all over the place’; its original meaning of ‘whether you like it or not’ (in other words ‘willing or unwilling’) is all but forgotten. Well, that’s ok, I suppose. I don’t mind either that the word ‘meld’ is now being used as a kind of fusion of melt and weld, instead of in its original sense of ‘announce’. Meld has changed … that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong in language, any more than there’s right or wrong in nature. Evolution is all about restless and continuous change, mutation and variation. What was once ‘meant’ in the animal kingdom to be a nose can end up as an antenna, a tongue, eyes, a pair of lips or a blank space once evolution and the permutation of new DNA and new conditions has got to work. If the foulness of the Kennel Club mentality was operated in nature, just imagine … giraffes’ necks wouldn’t be allowed to stretch, camels wouldn’t get humps, such alterations would be wrong. Well it’s the same in language, there’s no right or wrong, only usage. Convention exists, of course it does, but convention is no more a register of rightness or wrongness than etiquette is, it’s just another way of saying usage: convention is a privately agreed usage rather than a publicly evolving one. Conventions alter too, like life. Things that are kept to purity of line, in the Kennel Club manner, develop all the ghastly illnesses and deformations of inbreeding and lack of vital variation. Imagine if we all spoke the same language, fabulous as it is, as Dickens? Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it.

If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.

But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright. Unlike music, painting, dance and raffia work, you don’t have to be taught any part of language or buy any equipment to use it, all the power of it was in you from the moment the head of daddy’s little wiggler fused with the wall of mummy’s little bubble. So if you’ve got it, use it. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs to anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.

One final thought I should leave you with which only occurred to me the other day. Sometimes, by accident, language fails to provide and when it does the results can be hugely detrimental to the human race. Orwell famously suggested that language preceded thought, such that if the word ‘freedom’, for example, is removed from the dictionary, then the very idea of freedom will disappear with it be and be lost to humanity. A smart tyranny, he said, would remove words like justice, fairness, liberty and right from usage. But my thought occurred to me when I saw a graffito which took up a whole gable end wall in London the other day. It proclaimed, in great big strokes of white paint: “One nation under CCTV”. A good angry point – the American dictum ‘one nation under god’ sardonically replaced with a comment about Britain’s unenviable position as the Closed Circuit Television capital of the world. But … the satirical shout all but fails for one simple reason: CCTV is such a bland, clumsy, rhythmically null and phonically forgettable word, if you can call it a word, that the swipe lacks real punch. If one believed in conspiracy theories, you could almost call it genius that there is no more powerful word for the complex and frightening system of electronic surveillance that we lump into that weedy bundle of initials. For if CCTV was called … I don’t know …. something like SCUNT (Surveillance Camera Universal NeTwork, or whatever) then the acronyms might have passed into our language and its simple denotation would have taken on all the dark connotations which would allow “One nation under scunt” to have much more impact as a resistance slogan than “One nation under CCTV”. “Damn, I was scunted as I walked home,” “they’ve just erected a series of scunts in the street outside,” “Britain is the most scunted country in the world” … etc etc. Or maybe, just maybe, we should stick to the idea of initials and borrow a set that have already taken on the darkest possible connotations of evil and tyranny. Surveillance System. SS. ‘Britain’s SS is bigger than that of any other country.’ ‘The SS has taken over the UK’. Neither of these assertions would sound nearly as good if substituted with those lame letters ‘CCTV’, would they? Well, whether Scunt or SS surely there really should be a memorable and punchy new designation for CCTV – at the moment it is simply too greasy to wrestle. I wonder what other enemies lurk in our society that need names to bring them out into the light? I look forward to your thoughts.

I do not look forward to your thoughts on which inaccuracies and grammatical ‘mistakes’ irritate you though. This is not Feedback on Radio 4, or the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Oh alright, I take that back. You are welcome, of course, to disagree with my dislike of pedantry and to attempt to convince me that there is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ English.

If I were to direct you to any books about language, I would certainly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct but above that I would rate Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. This brilliant linguist mocks pedantry and the idea of stasis in language with far greater elegance and knowledge than I can. His informed empiricism, in this reader’s opinion, knocks the sometimes tortuously conjectural rationalism of Pinker into a cocked hat.

But don’t feel the need to study language as a subject, the sheer act of reading and of writing and of talking is enough. And this too is enough. I shall stop now before I get all … oh, it’s too late, I’ve already got all …

Until the next time, fellow linguists, thank you and goodbye.

© Stephen Fry 2008

A podcast version will be made available on Friday 7th November.

This blog was posted in Blessays

163 comments on “Don’t Mind Your Language…”

  1. krhotten says:

    When is the Podcaste Coming?

  2. follystone says:

    So glad to read that you’ve seen the light. Especially as your QI persona so often gives Alan Davies a hard time whenever he slips up.

    I think that Lynne Truss & her followers have done a terrible disservice to the cause of enjoyable communication. When we speak and write with empathy for the recipient, the better parts of grammar flow naturally and the more arcane rules can go hang.

    One last thought, didn’t you use one of the characters in The Liar to issue a diatribe on your behalf on the subject of any noun can be verbized?

  3. JonMcLellan says:

    Does the ‘S’ in ‘Scunt’ stand for secure?

  4. JonMcLellan says:

    As in curation?

  5. JonMcLellan says:

    Sick-cure, but that’s a word-game, so, so , pseudo-intellectual

  6. JonMcLellan says:


  7. JonMcLellan says:

    And otherwise un-orderly

  8. JonMcLellan says:

    (I don’t actually know what rambunctious means)

  9. aduramater says:

    I am rambunctious. I define it.

    I commend to everyone a book I enjoyed greatly in college, called BABEL-17 by Samuel R Delaney, in which a language is used as a weapon. Wikipedia refers to the novel’s “implicitly Whorfian view of language”, which may take us down alternate theory paths of language.

  10. moofable says:

    This entry is so fantastic that I could write enough praise to stretch beyond the moon.

    I must admit that I mumble bumble and stumble my way along language the same way I mumble bumble and stumble around my life, but oh how amazing they both are. I am often in wide-eyed shock over those who enjoy neither.

    Also, “one nation under surveillance.”

  11. darjeelingdarling says:

    “Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss?”

    Yes! That’s why I like you, and Wilde and Wodehouse and everyone else who plays with language. It’s why I love being bi(and a quarter)lingual, I can compare and revel in it. Did you know the chinese words for psychology and atheist mean “knowledge of the heart” and “not have theory of spirit person”, and that Norwegian has a special word for “weather where it’s appropriate to use the BlÃ¥ Swix brand of ski wax?” :D And we (Norwegians, that is) can’t use sentences like “…she said, lying through her teeth”.

  12. Patricio says:

    “So glad to read that you’ve seen the light. Especially as your QI persona so often gives Alan Davies a hard time whenever he slips up.”

    I agree with every word!

  13. blahblahblah says:

    I think that when someone writes with incorrect grammar, it shows a lack of understanding of the process of language. For example, the confusion of ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ shows that someone has no idea what a pronoun is, or at least what differentiates them. To come at the creation of texts as pleasure, it is first necessary to understand the basics of language. Painters must first learn to draw before the challenge boundaries like Picasso. In the same way, you must know the rules of language before you break them. When this occurs, it becomes a conscious act, a blurring of boundaries, and there is suddenly an element of defiance, or at least some intentional meaning belying whatever grammatical transgression has occurred. It is the linguistic exploits of a master rather than the blind attempts of an ignorant person which truly enable us to derive pleasure from language.

    However, I do agree that pedants who cannot see beyond corrections are misguided. I proudly carry a sharpie for the many necessary sign corrections but that does not mean that I don’t appreciate language, I think it means that it increases my appreciation.

  14. dean says:

    Like many who Twitter and use SMS I am prone to ignoring classical grammar and spelling, but I had to laugh with appreciation when I read Simon Heffer’s irate email to Daily Telegraph journalists on the correct use of English. I love particularly live his repeated insistence that the newspaper is not the Daily Star. I was wondering where all the tits were.

  15. Tonya_J says:

    Stephen, on the one hand I think you’re barking mad and on the other, a brilliant purveyor of what it means to love the sound of language. By barking mad, I mean that you, in a sea of those who would disagree with you given half a chance, dare to be an iconoclast. You’re also not a snob, which I am very, very gratified to find out. Always liked your acting but now I get to immerse myself in the other things that interest you.

    I AM a snob about language but only in one way; that people don’t care enough to educate themselves to the possibilities. Right now I work at a University and the conversations I hear as I walk about nearly drive me to tears, or my head to explode. You see, we are not all granola-eating surfer dudes and valley girls here. There is no excuse for using the simile “like” (… “and I’m all like, fuck no, I’m not going out with him, like no way, like can you believe that?!!” urgh) to replace other forms of speech in everyday conversation. I love quips, colloquialisms, turns of phrase, but when you are at a university with libraries and knowledge all around you and you’re studying something of worth, ostensibly, why don’t you try expanding your boundaries of discourse!! And even if you don’t have the advantage of a wealthy family, there are these things called public libraries here. They’re full of books, I understand, where you can go lose yourself for hours on end and read your ass off.

    True, I am not the typical Californian. In junior high school I was reading at practically college level. But reading for me was an escape from my family life and pretty much the only thing that saved my life and sanity. But it pains me to hear these young people mangling meaning and dumbing themselves down (not to mention middle-aged people who STILL talk that way). This, to me, is not embracing the full scope of what language can mean, sound, taste, and feel like.

    You said it best in your essay: “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?” Words are beautiful. I wish people would use more of them.

    ~~ T

  16. Dougie says:

    I’m clearly destined to have to contact Radio 4 as a pedantic, linguistic facist. I’m fully from the prescritivist “fewer” rather than “less” group (I blame my mother for that). But, that aside your diatribe is an excellent read.

    The newer meaning of the word “meld” has a lot to do with Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy, it was clearly the Vulcan Mind Meld that served to steer the definition towards it’s current meaning.

    I’m hoping that the word (or more correctly acronym) “scunt” will soon enter the OED. That should cause some trouble with Internet profanity filters in just the way that the poor residents of Scunthorpe suffer at the hands of the net nannies.

  17. shermarama says:

    Okay, there’s a useful distinction in there that I’d like to keep hold of. I am a PhD student and my supervisor’s written English is… well, that’s the problem, defining what’s wrong with it. He sends out emails full of typos and misspellings. If I send him written work or a paper, it comes back rewritten in a way that makes me want to take an axe to him. What I get twitchy about is the poor spelling and the misused words, because they’re easy to point to, but I also don’t like to see myself as a letter-writing language pedant and in normal life I let these things slide because it doesn’t matter. It matters more in a paper that’s going in a scientific journal so no-one thinks I’m being petty for wanting to get it right there, but I want to correct all his emails and random communications too because, well, after reading this I think it’s just his attitude to English that appalls me. He doesn’t care for it, he doesn’t understand that other people do and the only care he will take with it is to try and make anything academic sound like other academic English must sound to him; full of big words and stuffy constructions. Some of the best and most useful scientific papers I’ve come across have been written clearly and simply and I’d like to follow that style, but he will change a clear and simple sentence because to him it doesn’t sound *clever* enough. Which I wouldn’t mind as much if he wasn’t incompetent with English. He adds the word ‘respectively’ to the end of every list because that’s what goes on the end of scientific lists, isn’t it? regardless of how many times I have explained to him when it’s necessary. He doesn’t believe that I could have a better idea of how to use English than he does because he assumes that everyone else must be bluffing at least as much as he does.

    The question is, does anyone know how to inspire him, or any of the other people who don’t, to give a toss?

  18. pcalu says:

    Nice text! I completely agree with you.

    A very interesting book on language change (also for non-linguists) is ‘Language Change: Progress or Decay?’ by Jean Aitchison.

    An even more interesting book is ‘Het Einde van de Standaardtaal. Een wisseling van Europese taalcultuur’ by Joop van der Horst (linguist at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium). Sadly it’s only available in Dutch. The title in English would be something like ‘The End of the Standard Language. A Change of European Culture of Language’. His main point is that this period is a period of transition: we are going from a Renaissance viewpoint to something different. It’s only the last century that we have been living the end of the Renaissance. In his book, he gives a lot of evidence supporting that idea. A great read. He has received a lot of criticism for this book, mostly from pedants.

    (PS: sorry for my English, I’m no native speaker :))

  19. Woof says:

    Interesting. The dusty tales sat atop the bookshelf shall be brought out once again; as for the Chekov – Amazon.

  20. Scid Marx says:

    Many moons ago I listened to a song on the car radio. One line ended something like, “…this minute”, and my brain went straightaway in overdrive. What word could possibly finish the following line and rhyme with ‘minute’? Then it came, “A box with 20 roses innit”. I had to pull over because I was crying with laughter. Language is wonderful. And, in my opinion, the English language is so much more versatile than my mothertongue, Dutch. Shorter words, more to the point, kneadable, adaptable… It regularly happens that I read a word, sentence, parapraph, and I just have to read it again, because it tastes so good. Recent exemple: ‘The Road’, by McCarthy.

  21. myelinman says:

    Thanks for that Stephen. I’ve not commented before now because….well, I’ve just felt out of my depth; out of my element.

    Put me on a forum talking about how the sodium salt of R-Lipoic acid (Na-Rala) promotes healthy blood glucose, by reducing glucose tolerance and increasing insulin sensitivity etc etc….and I’m in my element. But to leave a comment on one of your blessays? It’s would be less daunting trying to outshine that Amstell fella on Buzzcocks….with Russel Brand as the guest Captain.

    Well, that was up until I read this rollercoaster ride of a Blessay. You know, I think I actually let out a few yelps of delight along the way!

    Thanks for the emboldening. A room full of Rembrandts, Dalis and Picassos, will always need a Pollock in the corner.

    Scunts. Haha.

  22. jim_herd says:

    I, too, believe that language should be allowed to evolve, meanings of words change and new words invented and/or adopted from foreign languages. That’s what’s made English great.

    I worked in France for a couple of years and the French, of course, have l’Academie francaise which is supposed to protect the French language against Anglicisation. Whenever an English word threatens to entrench itself they invent an all-new French alternative and enforce it’s use in public communcations, signs, etc. which is why they have le stationnement instead of le parking(once common) and l’ordinateur instead of le computer(I still hear the French say this in preference though).

    One day, in the French company I was working for, we had a meeting in French to discuss the new version control system we were going to use – VCS allow you store the evolving versions of computer files and recall old versions if needed, etc. With VCS you “check” files in and out of the system as required. The woman giving the talk in French started to use the words “checkiner” and “checkouter” much to the amusement of all concerned who’d never heard these brand new French verbs before;). L’Academie would not have been amused but was a good example of the evolution of the French language in the modern age;).

    Myself is, however, partial to a “not bad, how’s yourself” in response to the usual “how are you?” Not sure where I picked the habit up. Think it’s an Irish thing;):

  23. jim_herd says:

    Just spotted my “it’s” instead of “its”. Mortified and in a blog about pedantic apostrophism too;). Blush. It was a typo, honest;).

  24. Yvonne Durran says:

    You know, I could listen to you talk about language all day, Stephen. Or read you write about it, if you know what I mean. Words, written in particular, have always been a passion of mine and you seem to use them to their fullest potential. I can only compare reading your words with reading sheet music… in my head I can hear the words flow over each other in their own melody. Such a joy!

  25. TheChainedWolf says:

    I’ve just listened to your podgram version of your blessay and found it to be very interesting and eye-opening, in particular when you talked about the clumsiness of “CCTV”.

    I think another sort of sinster phrase which suffers from this is “Reality TV” or “Reality Television”. I’ve been trying to think of better ways to say it and my first thought was “Bazalgette”.

    I too find pedants deeply annoying. I work on Wikipedia and while the vandalism is annoying, the pedantry is just as if not more annoying. You think you have written the perfect article, and then someone tells you that you have used the wrong “There”. It so bloody infuriating.

  26. CallumRobson says:

    Stephen, Callum Robson here, long time listener/reader(ish), first time typer/replier to a blog (etc)…I read the blog and listened to your podgram at the same time … fantasic stuff! What must be said, is your way of speaking/writing (more the former, so to speak) is like an continuous onomatapeia, so colourful, so full of life, it would bring ‘pleasure’ to any reader/listener.

    You are indeed right, when it comes to enjoying language/words. I am fascinated by some of the ‘old language’ that has been lost, words like ‘scrogglings’ (little apples), and defenestrate (to throw (someone) out of window), how did these end up becoming extinct?. In saying that, words are ‘abstract’ in themselves, so unlike the dinosaur, ”extinct words” have the possibility to return…some day…

    Articulation for the nation.
    Express yourself without compromise…


  27. BasedensButtresses says:

    Very interesting stuff there. I wonder how the actual sound of words, the phonology of them, could perhaps be related to the meaning. This is probably moving into the rather obscure realm of psycho linguistics, but could it be possible, as you suggested with the lovely SCUNT example, that if a word sounds nasty, then we interpret its meaning as nasty. For example, take the word, i dont know, Noodle. Lots of lovely soft vowels, the two syllables merging easily into each other. So noodles, even if they were poisonous, seem rather nice. Whereas words like Grit or SCUNT have more fricatives, plosives, consonants which you spit out contemptuously, syllables that are fired out and fragmented from each other, to highlights their nastiness. Just a thought, it would of course be interesting to hear anyones ideas on it.
    anyway, lovely stuff, keep it up.

  28. jayjayneale says:

    I am a great fan of yours, Mr. Fry. I have watched as many of your sketches as I have been able to find and have been a subscriber to your podcasts almost since you began recording and webcasting them and this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to point something out to you. In reading, listening to or watching anything of yours, I always enjoy exploring the avenues of thought that you set my mind upon and usually enjoy you and your work without the need to tell you all about it.
    I agree with the most of your argument about how the obsession with the rules of the English language can detract from its effectiveness and the distinct individuality its “parole” can have and some “protecting” is simply unnecessary shit-stirring done by people with no lives. But, when you compared people who turn nous into verbs to great contemporary composers, I struggled to believe that you could be so unreasonable in argument.
    My personal qualm with people who turn nouns into verbs, is the fact that they generally do so out of sheer laziness and only wish to get their message across with as little effort as possible. Of course, there could also be beauty in this efficiency, but it does not match (for instance) Stravinsky’s motives for writing atonal music. He did so in an active and rebellious attempt to explore new possible ways of self-expression, whereas the average person only turns lunch into “do lunch” or “lunching” because they can’t be bothered to waste their precious breath on forming a complete sentence.
    I have lived in French-speaking Switzerland for nearly twelve years now and I’m afraid my sensitivity to this sort of shortening has only been heightened by my constant exposure to young French-speakers who have the insatiable need to abbreviate any word they use frequently: “Sarkozy” has become “Sarko”, “Adolescent” has become “Ado”, “Bolognaise” has become “Bolo”.
    Thankfully, your podcast has made me realise that I may be becoming one of your so-called Radio 4 listeners at age 17. None the less, I still find your comparison preposterous.
    I am passionately in love with both literature and music and I appreciate freaky free-verse modern poetry just as much as I appreciate well-ironed classical poetry. As an extremely young and green composer, I also find great satisfaction in writing and listening to music that obeys the rules of harmony and uses them cleverly, just as I find great pleasure walking in the shadows of Shostakovitch and Shoenberg. By no means would I reject any worthwhile artistic movement, but Mr. Fry, please don’t go so low as to say that people are actively trying to start some sort of revolution of the English language in the same way the great contemporary composers did with modern music.

    Thank you for your time, deeply thoughtful work and brilliant comedy and wit.

    With gratitude and admiration,

  29. P2C2E says:

    The quotation, “How can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’m going to say,” cited in the Language podcast made me wonder if Stephen knows the wonderful essay by Heinrich von Kleist called “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts while Speaking,” An English translation is available in a collection of Kleist’s Selected Writings edited by David Constantine. He probably does and can probably read it in the original German, but, if not, it might just be his cup of red zinger.

  30. Lenusha says:

    More than anything – inspiring! You make me want to write despite my numerous technical flaws. It gives me courage – as a non-native speaker – to dare, invent, ‘meld’ and twist this tongue into something new, odd, exciting and, perhaps ridiculous. Thank you so much for this!

  31. nonoyesyes says:

    You certainly have a wonderful grasp on communication, as is evidenced by your truly excellent blog pages… I am becoming a fan of your masterly skill with the written word!
    I was pretty much awestruck by your use of the marvelous english language the way you grab it by the scruff of the neck and make it WORK for you too (ref `A Little Touch of Fry and Laurie)
    A thoroughly interesting blog: thank you!

  32. tjo says:

    I probably wouldn’t listen to Stephen talk all day about language – there is only so much decoration I can bear and you really can have too much sugar in your syntax – but he canters through the touchpoints at a decent pace and in doing so raises enough to make us re-engage, so he’s done us a service. Thank you. Perhaps the dynamics and inate physics – as Pinker covers them elsewhere – of the way we learn and use language would have been another interesting point, but who’s counting?

    However what has surprised me is that the texture and mouthfeel and reference points of the CCTV example hasn’t provoked the obvious reaction: that the natural thing for those that wish to promote the protective and feel-good nature of CCTV is to find a much less mechanical and harsh name. You always know the intention of the writer by their terminology. Stephen takes a privacy-oriented viewpoint so chooses SCUNT which I think is clumsy and unusable in common speech by anybody except the up-themselves brigade. Petrol stations want you to know you’re being watched so use a phrase that makes you know that you won’t get away with driveaway theft. Shops (and malls and so on) typically draw a middle ground between protection and deterrence so call them security cameras. I might, or might not, choose to call them, oh, I don’t know, “people information reference devices”, or PIRDs. Or something equally soft. There’s a new PIRD on the corner and it’s stopped me worrying about going out for a loaf of bread late at night. I wonder what Jackie in “Red Road” would use?

    As my daughter says in her biog on, “words can change the world”. Individually, or in phrases. You don’t even have to get them right. Ich bin ein Berliner. But would today’s media have taken him to pieces for that as a gaffe, or recognised the common humanity that lay behind it?

    All of which, to end on a more trivial note, lets me use my favourite linguistic term to describe the thing we agree on: pedant me no pedantacisms. Which is not only a neologising imperative retort straight from what, C17?, but indeed the conversion of a noun to a verb and probably mixing up all kinds of other things while I’m doing it. Fun, isn’t it?

  33. lexiomatic says:

    As to the question of which came first, the language or the thought, I have only anecdotal evidence to present. I have one distinct memory of being a baby. There were white wicker walls around me, something with sprigs of blue flowers, a dark window and the sound of crickets. I was far to young to have the words that represented these observations, or even the concept of anything other than to feel what I felt, which is to say a distinct feeling of loneliness.

    This, to me, demonstrates that the thought came first. I am not disagreeing that the human mind is designed to absorb language like a hungry sponge, especially at first, but that only makes it incredibly difficult to imagine what it was like without it. If only you could forget the Narrator, that chattering commentary that is a construct of your memory and imagination, if you could, in effect, switch all your brain off except the baser instinct, all that would be left would merely be a howl, a grunt, a whimper. But of course, this, in itself, IS language. As is a facial expression, the comfort of taking a hand gently, the release of built-up air in your lungs. Language is more than just words. Which is, of course, why I sound so pompous and pretentious to everyone else who reads this!

    As to English, have you ever noticed with the blurb on the back of shampoo bottles, international packaging and the like that English is the most often shortest entry? We have so many different words and influences that we can pick and choose the shortest to fit the space available (hence 10 items or less, perhaps?) and still get the message across. This forces other languages to use a very different texture and many more words to create the same effect. For example the incredibly over-stuffed phrasing of French love-songs.

    Finally I would like to submit to all that one of the most fascinating languages I have seen, to date, is Japanese. Not the spoken language… but the written. The spoken can be almost devoid of inflection, and yet the written seems to be where they stored all layers of meaning, puns, misdirection and wit. Of course, that is from the point of view of a gaijin, and one not very good with the language at all!

  34. AlKing says:

    I think anyone who attacks the tranformation of nouns to verbs on general principle is deluded, but I don’ t think it can be argued that the practice is never objectionable, that ‘evolving’ the language (intransitive to transitive is another awkward one, but I digress :P) is always desirable. But, to use an entirely unfair analogy, in the right circumstances a creature could evolve to be blind, deaf, crippled and listless.
    Greater expressiveness is wonderful, after all, and there’s always room for more words, with entertaining specificness or subtlely differing connotations. Like nickb123, I’m a great fan of Joss Whedon; his neologisms have a wonderful vitality and aid expression.
    But so many neologisms, particularly of the noun-to-verb kind, that we see today are bureaucratic euphemisms which have a sort of eerie dehumanising vibe about them. I remember just recently reading, on a poster for the film ‘Man On A Wire’, the exhortation to “maximise the uplift” by seeing it on a big screen. No strict neologisms, and I might be alone in getting this feeling, but isn’t that a weirdly emotionally null phrase? It embodies the sort of connotation I have with many neologisms. If I have to choose between words with a richly textured connotational tapestry (cliche, that’s another issue for another day >_>) and those which exude a dull, bureaucratic sort of flatness I’d unhesitatingly choose the former. It’s because of a love for the poetry of language that I’m sometimes irked by its abuse.
    That said, with regard to “One nation under CCTV”, I think that very same effect works in its favour — the final staccato is like nails into the coffin of the original phrase which it is already undermining through sense. Form follows function or something like that. ‘SCUNT’, to me, would just result in a perverse anticlimax, while ‘CCTV’ has a sort of monotony that fits the idea it describes. It’s interesting, though, to think about the phrases and poems that don’t and won’t exist or have power on the sole basis of how we represent the concepts they involve.

  35. AlKing says:

    More briefly, I think that the kind of person who corrects split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences cares a lot more about being right than about language, but that there are nevertheless good reasons to object to the liberties taken by some with language and the ubiquity of such liberties. If Orwell’s Newspeak really did become the primary mode of communication, wouldn’t we have lost something?

  36. AlKing says:

    And if you’re posting two times in a row, why not three. tjo, I don’t believe “Ich bin ein Berliner” was a gaffe, I gather that’s just an urban myth. But then again, I wouldn’t put it past contemporary media to tear someone to pieces for an imagined gaffe, so it’s a moot point.

  37. kidhandsome says:

    I signed up just to say how enjoyable I found this entry (that’s what she…..nevermind!).

    I distinctly remember being taught in school (in Ireland) to pronounce it ‘haitch’. Oddly enough, I also remember the only reason given was that “the English pronounce it ‘aitch’”.


  38. kae says:

    Just listened to the Language Podgram, thought I’d offer a few quotes in response to the question ‘Is language the father of thought’

    In ‘The Doors of Perception’ Aldous Huxley discusses the theory that the brain and senses are eliminative. That we are capable of knowing so much more, but in order to deal with the information we receive through our senses we developed language and conscious thought systems. Huxley suggests that we are
    simultaneously the beneficiary and the victim of our linguistic tradition. ‘The beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness [and as such] it bedevils his sense of reality.’ He goes on to say that in the far reaches of the mind we operate outside of a system of conceptual thought. Baudrillard acknowledges this possibility, when asked what status he accords to thought he gives two possibilities, ‘imagine that it plays a regulative role… by creating around us a rational configuration, an imagining of the world in which the species can find its own reflection. Then it would have a positive mirror function, and would contribute to an informing of the world…Or, alternatively, it’s a challenge, a trap for reality to fall into, a way of moving more
    swiftly to the end,.. whatever that is.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein did not believe that the unsayable should be rejected out of hand either. as he explains ‘The things we [can] not talk about [are] the ones that really matter… My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.’

  39. pudenda says:

    I don’t have to like new words Mr Fry. Some are spotty butt ugly.

    I can moan about Americanisms if I want to. I can also moan about snobs who sneer at ‘semi educated losers’.

    Have you “diarized” your weekend yet? Sounds like you’re planning to pass abnormal amounts of urine…

  40. fitzywitzy says:

    Language can be fun, if a little distracting. After watching a repeat showing of QI last night, I kept myself awake for a few moments longer than I had hoped, puzzling over anagrams of each of the contestants’ names. I’m no anagram-meister, nor do I have the calculating capacity of a computer-powered anagramiser – hence, I came up with:

    Alan Davies – Advise anal
    Jo Brand – Dr Banjo
    Clive Anderson – Scone and liver
    Vic Reeves – Verse vice
    Stephen Fry – Frys pet hen

    Hardly imaginative, I know, but mildly satisfying.

    Tonight I shall have to make up for the minutes of sleep lost.

  41. violetpolkadots says:

    And now, for our collective lingual enjoyment, I have flipped through my dictionary and written these fun-to-say-aloud words as a mock post:
    kinematics epoch humdrum quisling rambunctious nibble octamerous thistle loblolly salutatory xanthoma veterinary jambalaya helical pavilion fallacious chinchilla brawl peculiarity
    now wasn’t that a giggle?

  42. Len says:

    I have posted a reasoned response at

    You got me thinking, which is something of a gift you have. Thanks.

  43. Wheeler says:

    I’m generally with you on the idea that we must be open to the evolution of language, despite my pedantic instincts. However, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on an evolutionary strand that riles me enormously, and that is the playground use of the word ‘gay’ to mean, in essence, ‘inferior’.

    I can’t abide it, and I think it’s more than evolution; it’s an insidious scrap of hate. To me this is more than a question of language. It is, perhaps, politics. But I know people who say that the use of ‘gay’ to mean ‘inferior’ should be seen as completely separate from the word ‘gay’ meaning ‘homosexual’, even if the origin of the new meaning is tied to the old. I can’t stomach the usage in my presence. I’ve rowed with friends about it.

    I appreciate the irony, of course, that it should be the word ‘gay’ that lies at the heart of this question, given that there is still a dying breed who take offence at the idea of ‘gay’ being co-opted to mean ‘homosexual’.

  44. kenhymes says:

    Your interest in the subject, Mr. Fry, is almost, but not quite, exhausting. Given your obvious voraciousness for insight into language, may I suggest the work of my father, Dell Hymes, and his contemporaries on the topic of langauge and culture?
    As Chomsky’s cult of scientific linguistics gradually loses its cachet, I hope many will notice its inherent helpfulness to utilitarian and de-humanizing ideologies, so oddly at variance with Chomsky’s public politics. I also hope that some few might discover the rich body of work about language and its socio-cultural meaning, in its original forms, before and behind the Deborah Tannen style popularizations.

    Language is no one’s property, and everyone’s. Every act of linguistic creation, however humble, is a form of conversation with the language itself, and between the language and its social environment. In some way, it’s magic, or at least alchemy.

    Fun site, thanks for your work. I still laugh at the pompous linguist of the Bit of Fry and Laurie sketch every time I see it.

  45. Hiraeth says:

    Why not simply Surveillance TV (STV)? Then we could call them Stevies! Have you been Stevied?

  46. ceiswyn says:

    So… pretty…

    *linguistic ferret-shock*

    Ahem. Having finally battled through my admiration of the prose to interpret what was actually said, I both agree and disagree.

    A certain amount of agreed-upon structure is necessary; one can’t just pile words in any old older and expect people to understand it. Language is for communication, whether of the time for tomorrow’s meeting or the feeling at the moment butterfly emerges from chrysalis; anything that impedes that conveyance of ideas from mind to mind is to be shunned.

    Thus I couldn’t give a toss whether something is ‘less’ or ‘fewer’; the meanings are equivalent, less a little pedantry, and both are understood easily, immediately. But a misplaced apostrophe jars, makes me pause, drops me out of the meeting of minds to staring at marks on paper (or indeed a screen) to unravel the meaning that is meant from the one that is written.

    Language should not jar, save where it is intended to jar. It should not mislead, save where it is intended to mislead. Somewhere between straitjacket and anarchy is the perfect balance; only everybody disagrees about exactly what it is.

  47. agsteele says:

    I blame my history teacher from school. Mrs Phillips (or Flo as she was affectionately and fearfully known) would regularly warn us of the dire consequences should we refer to a ‘secret ballot’ in any history essay dealing with whatever piece of legislation she might happen to require of our form.

    There are few phrases that cause me great angst other than the terrible ‘This door is alarmed’ but journalists reference to secret ballots will send me away muttering.

    Oh the damage caused by well meaning parents and teachers…

  48. hpoonis says:

    Surely there exists the distinction between spoken and written language. A point to ponder: being a native English-speaker (should one hyphenate there?) I tend to English as a written langauge.

    Without wanting to offend anyone I am prone to describe langauge in terms of purpose. For opera then Italian. For romance, French or Spanish. For direct purpose and order, German. For literature, English. “There can be no whitewash at the Whitehouse.” But there can and has been. For political and public idiocy then Bush-speak and HRH Philip-isms are close to gold medal winners.

    We, as English speakers (satisfy both hyphenated and non-hyphenated camps), have the most florid language at our tongue or finger tip. It is only when set down on paper that it appears to be at its least attractive. Grammar and syntax aside, the prolific use of ‘textspeak’ in place of full language is not a thing I care to adopt. A second point to ponder: do non-English-speakers (full, un-neccessary hyphenation) butcher their written word when SMS-ing?

    A short response as I am about to dash off to lunch…or should that be hyphenate?

  49. Opaque says:

    The English language and I have always had a sort of love-hate relationship. On one hand I find it very hard and most times impossible to fit my thoughts into the crude little boxes that are words. On the other hand I love the story that every word holds, and the more complex the word the more interesting.
    I am a synesthete (a condition, incidentally, that I remember you mentioning on Qi) so every letter and thus every word has a color for me. This makes writing a beautiful experience, because in my mind each plain black letter is surrounded by a warm glow of the appropriate color. Because of this I find just thinking about words (‘handling’ them if you will) more enjoyable than writing with them, since writing is frustrating, as I mentioned.
    What you say about translating languages and contrasting them struck a chord: I’m getting closer and closer to fluency in French and as I do I really begin to see the familiar meanings of words in a totally different context — I’ve stopped translating in my head to English and just let the French word trigger the meaning directly. It’s amazing, when you realize that some languages are just made for saying certain things better than others, and I’m really fascinated by the whole culture-language tie in: for instance the Eskimo tribe that has many many meanings for different kinds of snow, since it’s such a centerpiece of their culture, vs. a language originating in a warm climate that might not have even one word for it. And obviously, this example is only on the most basic level and there’s potential for even deeper investigation…
    That makes me think too — is there one language that is more suited to a certain individual’s writing/thinking style? There are certainly languages where the words seem more like what they mean for me: Yiddish, for example, though I only know a few words in it, has always really resonated with me, whereas Spanish seems totally counterintuitive. It’s comforting, I think, to think that there’s a language out there that is more or less tailored for me… if only I can find it.

  50. haverwench says:

    (heaving a deep sigh) Well, I suppose it falls to me to be the curmudgeon. At least it gives me an excuse to use the word “curmudgeon,” which is always fun.

    Yes, I am one of those people who snickers at misplaced apostrophes, who winces at phrases like “between he and I,” who cares deeply about the pronunciation of “nuclear.” One of *those people*–those you’ve lambasted here as killjoys who don’t truly care about language, but only about being right–your premise apparently being that if we truly loved the language and felt any sort of joy in it, we wouldn’t waste our time picking at linguistic nits. To be frank, this accusation wounded me to the quick, particularly coming from someone like you, whom I’ve always looked on as rather a kindred spirit–someone to whom language is at once a marvelous plaything, a noble cause, and a trusted friend.

    With all due respect, Mr. Fry, it’s precisely because I *do* love language in general and the English language in particular, and I *do* take joy in it, that it bothers me so much to hear it mauled about. Yes, yes, I understand that language is constantly evolving, and it’s not merely futile but counterproductive to try and keep it fixed at some arbitary point in its development that we’ve decided is more “correct” in its conventions than any other. But the language as it is right now, this minute, does have its conventions, and those who wantonly disregard them, to me, come across as disrespectful. Disrespectful to me, the listener, and also to the language itself. It hurts me, almost physically, when people spell everything phonetically and shove their punctuation marks in anyhow as if it didn’t really matter. It’s got nothing to do with clarity; usually (though not always) the meaning is more or less discernible under all the layers of rubbish. But as you pointed out yourself, language is far more than just a means of communication. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate” means roughly the same thing as “Gee, you’re cute,” but the way it’s said makes a difference.

    Sure, you could argue that as long as the meaning comes across, it shouldn’t matter whether the conventions are observed. By the same token, you could argue that there’s nothing wrong with showing up to work in your pajamas, because they serve all the essential functions of clothing (keeping you warm and covering what you’d rather not show). But as you noted yourself, to do so would be inconsiderate, would imply “not caring.” And to my mind, using “infer” in place of “imply” (a specific example you cite as an inconsequential nit that people like me can’t resist picking) has just that same aura of laziness. “Yeah, infer, imply, whatever. I know there’s some difference between the two, but I can’t be bothered to remember what it is. I’ll just use whichever one I feel like at the time. People will know what I mean anyway, so who cares?”

    Well, I care. I find this kind of linguistic sloppiness downright offensive. I think a glorious, rich, creamy, fattening language like English deserves more than a shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh, you know what I mean.” Yes, and I may know that my husband loves me, too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care whether or not he says it in no uncertain terms.

    And incidentally, the reason I object in so many cases to turning nouns into verbs is that usually there are already perfectly good verbs that mean the same thing. To use “impacted” when you mean “affected” strikes me as sheer bureau-corporate pretentiousness.

    And now I must be off for my nightly ritual of sucking down prune juice and sneering at the local greengrocer.

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